Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Brain (1988)

Written by: Barry Pearson
Directed by: Edward Hunt
Starring: Tom Bresnahan, Cynthia Preston, David Gale

It's kind of amazing the stuff you could get away with making in the 80s. The appetite for product of the home video market allowed not only the existence, but the profitable existence of an endless array of movies that would never see a major release today. Of course, today we have a veritable army of direct-to-video studios like Asylum and Brain Damage (are those guys still around?) cranking out one camcorder opus after another, but rounding up some of your friends and buying some fake blood and Halloween costume latex makeup appliances from Spencer Gifts doesn't represent nearly the mustering of labor and resources that shooting even a low-budget movie like tonight's feature did. Regardless of how cheap you think it may look (I see you in the back snickering about being able to see the stage hand pushing the giant brain across the warehouse floor slip out from behind the thing and almost biff it), a movie like this still required the input of considerably more than a couple of weekends' beer money. So Ed Hunt and company had to go around to studios and investors and try to convince them that a movie about a high school bad boy with a heart of gold fighting David Gale and his pet brain monster wasn't going to wind up costing them a second mortgage to stay out of Chapter 11.

Jim Majelewski is on the verge of getting kicked out of high school. He's failing all his classes despite being noticeably smarter than most of the other kids (although we meet him trying to scam homework off his girlfriend, which you'd think he'd be able to hammer out in no time if he was really such a...dare I start this early in the review...brain), and his idea of extracurricular activities is flushing blocks of sodium down the toilet and blowing up the plumbing (before the end credits roll we see WARNING: The washroom scene is a dramatic representation. Combining sodium and water may cause serious injury. Do not attempt it!!! pop up on the screen). The principal and Jim's parents decide that he will be allowed one more chance at avoiding expulsion on the condition that he submit to treatment at the Psychological Research Institute run by Dr. Anthony Blake. Blake also has a very popular local access talk show called Independent Thinkers.

The movie seems somewhat confused about both the size of Meadowvale, and the stature of Dr. Blake. During the opening scene, in which a mother watches Blake's show while her daughter hallucinates monsters attacking her, resulting in the daughter stabbing her mom to death while trying to free her from an imaginary tentacle, Blake thanks his audience for making Independent Thinkers the most watched show in the greater metropolitan area, and that they will be going national very soon. He is later referred to as a world-famous psychiatrist, and the PRI building is a massive, futuristic affair that looks to take up several acres, while Meadowvale is portrayed as a sleepy little town, which don't usually have greater metropolitan areas. One IMDB poster who said they live in Meadowvale confirms that it is in fact quite a large city, and that the PRI building is in fact a Xerox facility. So why would a world famous psychiatrist who runs an institution the size of an industrial factory only be able to get a local access talk show? This dude should have been bigger than Dr. Phil. I realize on the surface it's because we needed the threat of the Brain's control signal going global for our heroes to shut down on the night of the big broadcast, but it's a pretty glaring hole in what is, in most aspects, a fairly well thought out movie, which makes it rankle all the more.

Once inside PRI, Jim is subjected to what he is told is a standard psychological evaluation, but is in reality a test of his susceptibility to the Brain's control. The minds of the young and cynical have been giving the creature difficulty, and the result of a mind rejecting its thought patterns manifests as hallucinations and violent psychotic episodes. After failing his initial test, Jim is placed in a cell which he stays in for all of ten seconds before he goes walkabout and sees Blake talking to the Brain. He manages to escape, with Blake's henchman Verna (played by George Buza of the Red Green Show and human schnauzer impersonator extraordinaire) hot on his heels.

Janet and two of their friends come to rescue Jim, but only Janet and Jim make it out alive. The other two are brain chow. They go on the lam, but where do they run when every figure of adult authority in the entire town has already been brought under the Brain's control? The couple hide out in the school until they can figure out their next move, but while Jim grabs a cat nap, Janet turned on a TV, presumably to look for news regarding the search for Meadowvale's most wanted. Unfortunately, the TV was tuned to the public access channel, and when Jim finds Janet, she's already been hypnotized. Now Jim must return to the PRI facility (which apparently also houses a TV studio capable of boosting a nation-wide signal, once again bringing up the question of why the hell Independent Thinkers was ever a local program) and expose Dr. Blake and his monstrous master before the whole world winds up feeding the Brain. Hey, it's still better than watching reality TV.

Blake is exposed as nothing more than an ambulatory blob of protoplasm that acts as a mouthpiece for the Brain, but even after the world is safe from becoming drooling slaves, Jim and a now-fully-aware Janet now have to escape the furious, carnivorous alien Brain chasing them through the boiler rooms of the PRI complex. Wait, did that cabinet say, “DANGER: SODIUM IN USE”? I wonder if Jim saw Horror of Party Beach on TV as a kid?

As I said before, a few glaring plot holes aside, The Brain is a pretty clever little flick. It even gives the old monster movie trope of the adults not believing the kids that there's a monster on the loose some logic beyond the fact that that's just how things work in these movies. Every kid who has attempted to warn someone that Dr. Blake is plotting dastardly deeds has wound up having a psychotic fit and killing themselves or their parents. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't feel terribly inclined to believe anything being told me by a person trying to stab me to death!

The clothing and hair styles, not to mention the plot and the monster itself (tell me you wouldn't love to see a team-up movie featuring the Brain and Gor from The Brain from Planet Arous), all have a wonderfully retro 50's feel, but updated with some gore and nudity for 80's horror sensibilities (John Agar may have pushed the boundaries of good taste but he never got to cut anyone in half with a power saw). The biggest disappointment of the movie is that David Gale never gets to cut loose the full power of his scenery-devouring insanity like he does in Re-Animator and Syngenor. Dr. Blake is a pretty low-key dude, which is understandable when he's on TV giving motivational speeches to housewives, but during the lab scenes and the final confrontation with Jim, it would have been nice if Ed Hunt had let him off the leash.

It's not quite on the level of something like Night of the Creeps, but if you're looking for a fun, fairly smart, if rather impoverished genre homage/pastiche with a memorable monster design and some decent performances (or if, like me, you just get a kick out of seeing people from the Red Green Show in other things), you could do a lot worse than spending 90 minutes with The Brain.

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